VIENNA: Austria's parliament is due to vote on Thursday (Jan 20) on introducing a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for adults, the first of its kind in Europe.
The mandate drawn up by the government would apply to all residents of Austria age 18 and over, with exemptions for pregnant women, individuals who for medical reasons can't be vaccinated and people who have recovered from a coronavirus infection in the past six months.
It appears assured of approval. Chancellor Karl Nehammer's governing coalition, made up of his conservative Austrian People's Party and the Greens, worked with two of the three opposition parties in parliament on the plan. The other opposition party, the far-right Freedom Party, vehemently opposes it.
The plan is for the vaccine mandate to become law at the beginning of February. To start with, authorities will write to every household to inform them of the new rules.
From mid-March, police will start checking people’s vaccination status during routine checks; people who can’t produce proof of vaccination will be asked in writing to do so, and will be fined up to €600 (US$685) if they don’t.
If authorities judge the country's vaccination progress still to be insufficient, Nehammer says they would then send reminders to people who remain unvaccinated. If that still doesn’t work, people would be sent a vaccination appointment and fined if they don’t keep it. Officials hope they won’t need to use the last measure. Fines could reach €3,600 if people contest their punishment and full proceedings are opened.
The mandate is supposed to remain in place until the end of January 2024. An expert commission will report to the government and parliament every three months on vaccination progress.
The government originally intended for the mandate to apply to all residents 14 and over, but changed that to 18 during consultations with political opponents and others.
The Austrian government announced the plan for a universal vaccine mandate at the same time it imposed a since-lifted lockdown in November and amid concern that Austria’s vaccination rate was comparatively low for Western Europe. As of Wednesday, 71.8 per cent of the population of 8.9 million was considered fully vaccinated.
“All experts believe that we will need high overall immunity in the population next fall as well,” Health Minister Wolfgang Mueckstein said on Sunday. “With this vaccine mandate, we will succeed in achieving these important additional percentage points in the vaccination rate.”
Some other European countries have introduced vaccine mandates for specific professional or age groups. Neighbouring Germany is considering a mandate for all, but it's not yet clear whether, when and in what form that will go ahead.